Game design, B-minus, should try harder.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about common clichés in games and we started listing all those funny little things that seem to make their way into lots of the video games we play. Use any search engine to find them. However, he thought there was more to it and we shouldn't be forcing players to do all those dull things, simply because all games do them. Designers of games should try a bit harder. He sent me an email of all the lazy design elements in games and I thought I'd post it on our company forum. It got some responses, good but mostly bad, yet it has driven him on to send me another email explaining his thinking. Rather than post it on the company forum, I have his permission to post it up here. So here it is, unedited.
A while ago, I had a talk with Dr. Andrew Hague (who is posting this item for me) about game elements I'd seen so often in the last 35 years (that's not a misprint, I'm 55 and played my first game, a text-based Lunar Module Lander sim, on a mainframe teletype in 1976), that at least FTTB I'd like never to see them again.
Partly for amusement, I wrote up the elements as a hit list of "things it should be possible to design games without". It wasn't intended to refer to any particular genre, although due to age and health problems I don't have the reactions for some, and this post is about single-player only. I've certainly tried most genres on most platforms over the years, and technically I'm very happy with current-gen hardware.
When Andrew posted the list on the discussion board at the games company he works for, it was not popular with his colleagues, being variously described as "obnoxious", a "tirade", and an objection to any game I happened not to like, whereas I've liked many games with these features some time in the past, I'm just sick of the sight of them now.
So this post attempts to explain why I'm objecting rather than just what to. I think other than cliché (Zombies, Nazis, boss battles, mazes, crates...), most of the list derived from two main issues:
ONE: Insufficient compaction of rote
Consider the 'Eagle Tower' in the original Assassin's Creed (neglecting the metastory justifications): Altair starts without a map but if he climbs to high points he can memorise the surrounding area and gradually stitch one together from the views. You/he add a view as follows:
Arrive at the base of a tower.
Hold down High Profile/Free-Run/forward (occasionally shifting to left or right) to climb the tower
Shuffle around at the top to crouch on a 'perch'.
Press Vision to watch a helicopter shot circle the tower and be told there's a map update.
There is a shortcut 'Leap of Faith' for getting down, but even that requires the player to orient the character exactly first, rather than assume that he'd only jump off a vantage point several hundred feet up in the direction of a soft landing...
...there are variations: towers with odd mount points, or a guard to kill at the top, but fundamentally that's it. The whole thing could be replaced by a street seller selling a map segment at a stall on the base of the tower, one selling a map of the whole city on arrival, or a design that admits an Assassins' Guild would likely have decent maps to begin with. There are many of these towers in the game, so repeating the mechanical exercise for each one could absorb a couple of hours of playing time, without generating more than moments of actual gameplay.
Other examples of shorter, but similar, rote sequences common in other games:
— breaking a vase/opening a box to get at a pickup; having to holster weapons to collect it
— having to pick up every object in a pile separately
— moving a box to reach up to a broken ladder
— door opening pantomimes (keycard slots, locks to pick, windlasses to turn, ...)
— having to travel to a 'shop' each time you want (need) to update inventory
The limiting case is what I call 'Samuel L. Jackson' gaming, where you absolutely, positively, have to kill every last MF in the room (and break every breakable object) because one of them will be carrying something (or concealing a switch) without which you can't go on. Even worse, fancy randomised death animations result in the something being dropped over a cliff, or under the tracks of the tank you're supposed to use it on — Nolan North's ad-lib "what kind of a ****wit design forces a restart for doing the right thing?" didn't make the final edit...
Now I know, for example, that for most of the 90s, platformers from the original Prince of Persia to its 3D successors would expect players to safety-walk to an edge, hop back for the running jump, and then hold down the Grab key for the entire following ledge shuffle, but at the time they were seeing something new and cool in exchange. No longer. This game's innovative custom code is the next game's middleware subroutine, but the associated mechanical button-pressing often doesn't diminish in the same ratio as the code to invoke it does.
To quote a review that was posted as I was putting the finishing touches to this, "There's nothing wrong in decoding a lock with a cryptographic sequencer, or blasting through a weak wall with explosive gel, or even opening up a shutter door with a quick blast of your remote electric charge device. But when you have to do all three in a row for the umpteenth time, you start to think that perhaps a simple door knob would have sufficed." wHOLeY Repititious, Batman...
Stuff gets old. Zipf's Law operates. In games, not so much. This needs fixing.
TWO: Hair-shirt attitudes to problem setting
There are probably theses out there on how choices that were originally random, or worse (e.g., the QWERTY keyboard), become so established people forget the alternatives and act as if they're the only possible answer. Here are some examples I see as gaming choices-too-often-mistreated-as-axioms:
(a) any solo game with anything resembling a player avatar must have a storyline, no matter how thin, to justify the gameplay. Find the treasure; reassemble the amulet; defeat the wizard; rescue the princess; ...
(b) the storyline must be monolithic, as in a novel or play or film, rather than an anthology of related short stories, or a music hall/vaudeville programme, or standalone episodes of a TV show, or just a list of one-line jokes
(c) the player has to experience the storyline serially as if it were a live performance, despite it actually being a pre-recorded one which in other similar media has chaptering, skip, and search functions.
(d) the player is constantly tested on whether they're paying sufficent attention, and barred from the rest of the content till they get a pass score if not, despite having already paid for the entire performance.
Finish level N or you can't play level N+1; complete the fetch quest; beat the boss; solve combinatoric inventory puzzles by exhaustion; or you can't access the rest of your property, that you've paid for.
Is it any wonder most games don't get finished any more? Would the designers of such games accept a CD or DVD or even a media download in which they couldn't select, skip, and fast-forward over the bits that didn't interest them? If so, why do they expect players to work through their dull or unpleasant bits when they won't even sit for other peoples'?
It may be that the whole idea of 'winning' at solo games has historically been overplayed because the preponderance of testosterone in early generations of both players and designers led to the idea the game was a contest between them. No-one 'beats' a book's author by reading it, a film's director by sitting through it, or a composer by listening to their music — although I admit there are exceptions that prove the rule in all three categories — hi, Jean-Luc ;)
If you want to peek at hidden cards at Solitaire, you're free to do so, the game mechanics don't stop you, and anyway you can't cheat when the only person affected is yourself. As the computer gaming demographic widens towards the card playing one, perhaps the range of difficulty levels should open up at that end too?
If a player can't/doesn't want to solve a puzzle or find a pickup, why should they have to look for a walkthrough? (Jonathan Blow's argument might have been valid had he given his game away as art, but once he took peoples' money it's grubby commerce, and the customer is always right...) If they can't/don't want to beat a boss, why should they have to download a save, assuming the platform deigns to let them? Why don't the controller's media trick play mappings work in cutscenes, when, apart from menu-to-skip, most buttons don't do anything at all?
Shortening playing times or offering DLC add-ons isn't the answer, that's just including a tiny number of skips at point-of-purchase, instead of systematically offering of them at all points of play. Dumbing down the basic content isn't either; that just alienates the hardcore instead of the casual. Selling skip codes as DLC is just criminal, and I wouldn't touch any game that tried it (and didn't touch those that have)
So why not just ditch the Neitzschian "that which does not kill me makes me stronger" attitude to game roadblocks, by simply extending the range of difficulty levels to include the same kind of skips for content as cutscenes? In many cases, players will actually play (and enjoy, and come back for more of) more of your games by skipping the hardest material, and actually getting to the end, than they do currently when they trade-in at the first barrier they can't get over...
I now think my original list should have been titled "things it should be possible to design games without forcing the player to do"...